When it comes to cinema, one of the more interesting yet less talked about subgenres is poker movies. Poker movies tap into the same audience that loves casino flicks but narrow the lens to focus on the most dramatic game. Whether it’s the main focus of the movie or only a backdrop to the overarching plot, a good poker movie captures the elements of strategy and suspense that make the game so popular. With that in mind, today we’re going to look at the five best poker films from the last three decades.
The top entry on this list might not be a surprise to some of you. In fact, for a lot of people, “Rounders” is the first film that comes to mind when they think of poker on the big screen. The movie is still beloved today, as seen by the excitement in the poker world when the screenplay for the film recently released. A lot of professional players cite it as the reason that they first gained interest in the game, and it’s easy to see why they still discuss its nuances today. Matt Damon and Edward Norton deliver excellent performances, and although the drama might be slightly exaggerated, it captures the essence of poker perfectly. It’s how a movie scripts poker right.
This entry on the list is a unique improv comedy with a selection of talented actors that includes Woody Harrelson, Judy Greer and Ray Romano. The setup for the plot is that Harrelson’s character has entered a $10 million cash prize tournament originally created by his grandfather. The aspect of this film that makes it so interesting is that the entire tournament was unscripted. Of course, the actors had roles to fulfill, but the acting was all improvised. More importantly, the game of poker was also improvised. That means that the character who ends up winning did so because their actor was the best player of the bunch. It brings a realism to the film that can’t be replicated by a scripted scene and makes it one poker film that you shouldn’t miss.
If we’re talking about realism and relevance to the modern game, then this film doesn’t fit the bill, but nonetheless, it’s one of the greats. Set in the American Wild West, the film is a spiritual successor to a 1950’s TV show of the same name, which had a notable impact on poker in pop culture at the time of its release. The story follows a wily bettor headed to a high-stakes tournament, who scams a bunch of players to get the last bit of cash he needs to enter. In doing so, he makes enemies of some of the players, who then try to interfere with his plans to take home the big money. With big 90’s actor names such as Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, it’s no surprise that the film is a joy to watch. Mel Gibson’s protagonist has that funny yet serious attitude he pulled of so well in “Lethal Weapon,” and while it may not be accurate, the movie perfectly captures the iconic image of Wild West poker that immediately comes to mind. It’s exhilarating, intriguing and frightening all at the same time.
This amusing yet gripping movie sees a down-on-his-luck poker player join forces with a younger charismatic man to try and win big. The two travel to New Orleans to take part in a high-stakes poker game that could change their lives forever. The film faces a lot of the problems that poker movies tend to, with some aspects being more exaggerated and stylized for the audience’s amusement, but with that said, it’s still an entertaining watch. Also, Ryan Reynolds makes everything better.
This riveting documentary attempts to summarize the entire story of poker, giving explanations for its massive rise in popularity. To answer these questions, the director Douglas Tirola interviews several well-respected players. He also sits down with celebrities who have crossed paths with poker in some way, such as Matt Damon, famous for his role in “Rounders” (more on that later). For anyone interested in learning about the past, present and possible future of poker, this is the film for you.